My schmick new assessment design!

Teaching at university can be tricky, mostly due to the emphasis on summative assessment.

Since starting this position in 2010 I have been attempting to infuse the unit I coordinate with greater amounts of project-based learning. However, in a context where students have little time or incentive to engage with classwork that isn’t formally assessed, it has been hard to reward things like student project work.

After three semesters of teaching English Curriculum Studies 1 I decided that a radically new assignment was in order. 


Students used to do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis
  • Assignment 2 – Report on video lessons and learner needs observed
  • Assignment 3 – Junior secondary English lesson plans

All of these assessment pieces were completed individually – no collaboration was required and no public audience was utilised.

From this semester onward, students now do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis (same as before)
  • Assignment 2 – Junior secondary English lesson plans (now completed in small groups of 2 or 3)
  • Assignment 3 – A range of CHALLENGE TASKS published in a portfolio <– SCHMICK NEW TASK!

The New Task:

Many of the key ideas about inquiry-based and cooperative learning that I am working with can be found in a book extract provided by Edutopia: Teaching for Meaningful Learning by Brigid Barron & Linda Darling-Hammond.

Here is a brief extract – some words about project-based learning:

“Project-based learning involves completing complex tasks that typically result in a realistic product, event, or presentation to an audience. Thomas (2000) identifies five key components of effective project-based learning. It is: central to the curriculum, organized around driving questions that lead students to encounter central concepts or principles, focused on a constructive investigation that involves inquiry and knowledge building, student-driven (students are responsible for designing and managing their work), and authentic, focusing on problems that occur in the real world and that people care about.” (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 3; my emphasis)

What I’ve done in my new task is to create a poetry ‘project’ as one of 10 ‘challenges’ that students need to complete.

After trialling a poetry project last semester, I know that students see value in, and engage with this kind of learning.  But, at the end of the day, students felt let down because the work they put into their projects didn’t ‘count’ towards their final grade.

Once I started messing around with a new assignment that gave them credit for their project work, it was too hard not to design a whole suite of ‘challenges’ that they could choose to take up! So, that’s what I’ve done – students decide what grade they want to get, and complete the number of challenges needed to obtain it.

Challenge-based learning‘ as a term has not gained as much traction as ‘project-based learning’, but I think there is something to be said for the difference in terminology. In my teaching context, students are completing a ‘project’, but there is a minimum standard they have to reach to be able to ‘pass’ the assessment. Also, there is less focus on a ‘driving question’ than a PBL task would have – more of an emphasis on the products needing to be made. Hence my use of the term ‘challenge’ in the overall task.

The Challenges:

OK, the easiest way to show you the assignment is to share copies of my assignment sheets:

CLB018-CLP408 challenge portfolio task

A matrix of challenge tasks is provided for students to choose from in assignment 3. 

Students will receive a grade for Assignment 3 based on the number of challenges completed: 


CHALLENGE TASK peer assessment sheet

Note the peer assessment component of this task. This is something I am especially proud of, for a number of reasons! Not only am I hoping that this will result in a more sustainable marking practice for me (I will be checking/validating the peer marking, but no re-doing it), but it is also a strategy for getting the students to learn how to share their work and act as ‘critical friends’. I also think that having anopther preservice teacher assess your work in this context can be seen as providing an ‘authentic audience’ for student work.


The student portfolios for this task are due next Friday, so I’ve yet to see how this new assessment plays out in real life.

One idea I have bubbling away about the teaching methods chosen is that ‘project-based’ learning can perhaps be broken down further as being either ‘inquiry-driven’ or ‘challenge-driven’ (and maybe even a third category, ‘play-driven’). But that’s a hierarchy that I’m still thinking through…

There is a lot going on here, I realise. But I’d seriously LOVE to hear feedback from my critical friends, including any students that end up reading this post 🙂

If you have any questions to ask, shoot them at me too! Obviously I’m quite proud of what I’ve constructed here, but in a few weeks it will be time to reflect again on how to improve for semester 2, so as they say…bring it!

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  1. #1 by Jeffrey Lewis on April 30, 2012 - 12:03 am

    Hi Kelli,

    I found this to be a really fascinating entry. It’s great to get such an insight into the mechanisms of teaching, learning and assessment in higher education: as a recent graduate I have to say that I never felt I fully grasped or understood the system I was working through.

    The distinction you’ve drawn between project-based learning and challenge-based learning is an interesting one for me. I agree with your thoughts, but would contend that the shift in terminology also represents a change in focus away from the ‘process’ of learning towards the actual ‘product/s’. Obviously the process is still critical, but I wonder what the implications are in terms of assessment.

    In my own practice, I’ve been trying to implement more authentic tasks that incorporate the pedagogy of project-based learning through the creation of portfolio artefacts. For example, I’ve used a portfolio task as a formative assessment tool, where students are building their own field knowledge based on prior knowledge and research. However, I’ve found that students are somewhat hesitant to fully commit to the task if it won’t directly contribute to their summative grade. This has given me a lot to think about in relation to how summative assessment can draw on the principals of project-based and challenge-based learning, to make the process more meaningful for students.

    I have to say, I love the peer-reflection component of this task. In addition to the benefits you already listed, I found that my pre-service teacher training gave me limited opportunities to engage with the process of evaluating work against given criteria, which of course is such a critical component to classroom teaching. I applaud this effort simply because it will allow students to work in that critical mode, but with the safety and support of a cleverly-constructed matrix that limits the opportunities for unfair or overly-critical judgments.

    One question I do have: hypothetically, let’s say a student completes all 10 challenges. According to your matrix, that will give them an automatic High Distinction. Is there any room for judgment on quality? The way I’m interpreting this, students simply have to have the elements of each challenge’s criteria ‘evident’ in their work. Does this mean that somebody who completes 10 challenges to an acceptable standard will do better than somebody who completes 8 challenges to an exemplary standard? I’m not passing judgment, simply seeking clarification (and perhaps your thoughts/reasoning behind this choice).

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on May 8, 2012 - 1:56 pm

      Thanks for your comment Jeffrey 🙂
      I think you are right about project-based learning having a focus on the ‘process’, while challenge-based learning seems to focus more on the ‘product’. For me, there are definitely implications for assessment here. The big points in my mind are:

      1. In project-based learning, students are encouraged to take risks, to be creative and to ‘think outside the box’. But, if the project outcome or ‘product’ is going to be assessed really harshly, then creativity will be discouraged as students try to produce something that meets the teacher’s expectation.
      2. In challenge-based learning, students should work as hard as they can to meet the challenge. With a clear focus on assessment of the final product, it’s hardly fair to expect students to also attend to the learning ‘process’ as well (unless it is somehow made part of the challenge).

      You are right that both the learning process and product are important. However, while we can always assess both of these, we have to make choices about whether that assessment will be ‘low-stakes’ or ‘high-stakes’ i.e. How high a standard is supposed to be reached, and how important is it to reach that standard?

      I suggest that in project-based learning, the most important thing is that everyone completes a project. Participation, collaboration and presentation are vital, so the assessment of ‘process’ might be high-stakes (e.g. contributes to semester grade?) but the assessment of the actual finished ‘product’ might be low-stakes (e.g. Projects not graded, but awards/prizes given for best projects).

      On the other hand, in challenge-based learning, the most important thing is meeting the challenge. In terms of this, I like the way the Mythbusters do it – they test a myth to decide if it is ‘confirmed’, ‘busted’, or ‘plausible’. This is just my opinion, but I think providing less result options is the thing that helps students to engage with the challenge itself – otherwise, they spend their time splitting hairs over what an ‘A’ grade looks like compared to a ‘C’ grade. I hate that.

      Does that make sense?

      I hope it explains some things a bit more anyway!

      As for your other question – is it intended that students in my assessment can do 8 awesome challenges and only get a Distinction, while another student can do 10 mediocre challenges and get a High Distinction…

      Yes! It was absolutely intended. It’s really important to have a clear idea in your mind of what an assessment is trying to teach. I wanted to leave students with a firm understanding that their job as a teacher will involve getting lots of tasks done at once. Hence only wanting to reward students with HDs if they managed to do everything!
      A valuable lesson, but too harsh? I hope not!

    • #3 by kmcg2375 on May 8, 2012 - 2:00 pm

      Oh, and thank you for loving the peer assessment aspect of the task – it’s something I feel very passionately about! I’m glad you can see the value in finding a way to scaffold this experience for pre-service teachers 🙂

      • #4 by Jeffrey Lewis on May 8, 2012 - 5:12 pm

        Thanks so much for your detailed responses! Really great to have those clarifications, and your thoughts on project-based vs challenge-based learning are certainly thought provoking. I guess ultimately I can see the benefits of both pedagogies, though their application will depend on the desired learning outcomes and what you’re trying to assess.

        Could not agree more with your view on ‘splitting hairs’ between A and C grades. While I understand (and support) students trying to achieve to their very best, I’ve already found that the obsession over understanding and adhering to criteria can be stifling to students, and removes the emphasis away from ‘learning’ towards ‘correctly completing this assessment task’. In that way, I think your rationale for tier-based assessment is fantastic: it places the onus on students to own the learning, and removes that giant ‘assessment monster’ which can hang over student’s heads. And, as you say… multitasking and time management are critical skills to master!

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